The Pentagon will deploy 1,500 troops to the Middle East, including missile-defense and surveillance units, a senior official said Friday, in the White House's latest step to address what it says are increased threats from Iran.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he had approved U.S. Central Command's request to deploy a Patriot missile battalion, intelligence and surveillance aircraft, a squadron of fighter planes and engineering capabilities to "improve our force protection and safeguard U.S. forces given the ongoing threat posed by Iranian forces ... and its proxies."
"The additional deployment to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility is a prudent defensive measure and intended to reduce the possibility of future hostilities," he said in a statement.
The decision was made after a meeting late Thursday at the White House of President Donald Trump and top Pentagon leaders.
In recent days Shanahan has said that any new troop deployments would serve to ensure the protection of U.S. forces and avoid the risk of Iranian miscalculation that could lead to a broader conflict.
"Our job is deterrence. This is not about war," he said Thursday. "We have a mission there in the Middle East: Freedom of navigation, counterterrorism in Syria and Iraq, defeating al-Qaida in Yemen, and the security of Israel and Jordan."
Speaking outside the White House, Trump said that "a relatively small number of troops -- mostly protective" were being sent to the region.
The type of forces the Pentagon is deploying does not indicate any impending ground offensive by the United States. Patriot missiles are designed to track and shoot down incoming missiles.
The decision comes as the Trump administration steps up pressure on Iran after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear accord negotiated by President Barack Obama. Since then, the Trump administration has increased sanctions, designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization and declined to renew waivers that allowed eight countries to buy Iranian oil.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have cited new indications of possible Iranian attacks on American interests as a reason to send the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, four B-52 bombers and Patriot missile-defense batteries to the region. The State Department ordered the evacuation of all nonemergency personnel from Iraq, where Iranian proxy forces operate.
U.S. officials say they believe that Iran was behind sabotage attacks on four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates this month.
Vice Adm. Michael Gilday said that the U.S. has "very high confidence" that Iran's Revolutionary Guard was responsible for the explosions on the tankers, and that Iranian proxies in Iraq fired rockets into Baghdad near the U.S. Embassy. He said Iran also tried to deploy modified small boats that were capable of launching cruise missiles.
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Gilday, the Joint Staff director, did not provide direct evidence to back up claims tying Iran to the attacks. He said the conclusions were based on intelligence and evidence gathered in the region, and officials said they are trying to declassify some of the information so that it could be made public.
"This is truly operations driven by intelligence," Gilday said, adding that the U.S. continues to see intelligence suggesting that Iran is actively planning attacks against the U.S. and partners in the region by the Revolutionary Guard and Iranian proxies in Yemen and Iraq.
When pressed for proof of Iran's involvement, he said the mines used in the tanker attacks were attributed directly to the Revolutionary Guard and he said threats could be traced back to senior leaders in Iran.
"I'm not reverse engineering this," he said. "The Iranians have said publicly they were going to do things. We learn more through intelligence reporting. They have acted upon those threats and they've actually attacked."
Iran has denied involvement in the incidents, which damaged the ships. Two of the ships were Saudi Arabian, one was from the United Arab Emirates and the fourth was Norwegian.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, defended the increased military posture announced Friday, saying in a statement that it is "important that we make clear to Iran, in words and actions, that they cannot attack us with impunity."
But Democrats have expressed skepticism about the urgency of the threats and voiced concern that the White House under the leadership of national security adviser John Bolton, who has advocated for regime change in Iran, could rush into a conflict.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee's chairman, called the new deployment "unsettling."
"Without a clearly articulated strategy, adding more personnel and mission systems seems unwise, and appears to be a blatant and heavy-handed move to further escalate tensions with Iran," he said in a statement.
The increased pressure prompted a backlash by Iran, which announced this week that it has quadrupled the pace at which it enriches low-grade uranium at one nuclear plant. It predicted that within weeks, it would exceed a stockpile cap set by the nuclear agreement.
A senior administration official on Friday accused Iran of using "nuclear blackmail" for threatening to stop meeting some of its commitments under the deal if the Europeans can't figure out a way to get around U.S. sanctions by early June.
"We are trying to work as closely as we can with our allies to get them to hold fast on these fairly negative attempts at nuclear extortion and not give in to Iran's demands," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to a small group of reporters.
With Iran's accelerated pace of uranium enrichment and the looming deadline for the Europeans to throw it a lifeline, the official said the Europeans must choose "whether or not they will give in to this kind of extortion or stand firm and make clear to Iran that there is one viable path for them, and that is to come to the table with us."
'THE END OF TRUMP'
Separately, Iran's foreign minister lashed out at Trump on Friday during a visit to Pakistan ahead of next week's emergency Arab League meeting called by Saudi Arabia over the region's tensions.
Mohammad Javad Zarif assailed the American president for his tweet earlier this week warning Iran not to threaten the U.S. again or it would face its "official end."
"Iran will see the end of Trump, but he will never see the end of Iran," Zarif was quoted by Iran's semiofficial Fars new agency as saying during a visit to Islamabad.
The purpose of Zarif's visit to Pakistan, where he held talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and also Prime Minister Imran Khan, was not made public.
But there has been speculation that Iran is looking to Islamabad and its close relationship with the Saudis to help de-escalate the situation. In a statement after meetings with Zarif, Khan said "Pakistan was prepared to use its friendly relations in the region to help lower tensions among brotherly countries and promote peace and stability in the region. ... War is not a solution to any problem."
Zarif has been criticized this week by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who named him and President Hassan Rouhani as failing to implement the leader's orders over Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Khamenei had claimed the deal had "numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses" that could damage Iran.
Meanwhile, Oman's Foreign Ministry said it was working to "ease the tensions" between Iran and the U.S.
The ministry in a series of tweets Friday morning attributed the comments to Yusuf bin Alawi, the sultanate's minister of state for foreign affairs, and cited an interview in Asharq Al-Wasat, the London newspaper owned by a Saudi media group long associated with the Al Saud royal family.
In the interview, bin Alawi warns war "could harm the entire world if it breaks out." He doesn't confirm any current Omani mediation but says both the U.S. and Iran realize the gravity of the situation.
Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said spoke last week by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Oman, a nation on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been an interlocutor of the West with Iran. The U.S. held secret talks in Oman with the Iranians that led to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Information for this article was contributed by Paul Sonne, Missy Ryan, Carol Morello and Anne Gearan of The Washington Post; and by Susannah George, Lolita C. Baldor, Kathy Gannon, Amir Vahdat, Jon Gambrell and Zarar Khan of The Associated Press.
A Section on 05/25/2019
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